With Trump, when it comes to Israel, you just don’t know


Op-ed: The new president, the great hope of the Israeli right, has already bashed settlements, paused the embassy relocation, and urged Israel to be reasonable in its dealings with the Palestinians. He may say the opposite to Netanyahu. Or not. And whatever he says may not translate into policy afterwards. Good luck to us all

Times of Israel

Last Thursday, just a few hours before he dined with Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, US President Donald Trump gave an interview to Adelson’s free Israeli daily Israel Hayom in which he unmistakably declared his opposition to the expanding Israeli settlement enterprise.

The question he was asked by the interviewer was plainly phrased to elicit a positive presidential response on settlements: “We heard from Washington this week that settlements are not an impediment to the peace process,” Boaz Bismuth ventured. “I guess this is an issue you and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are going to discuss?”

But Trump, rather than performing as expected by reiterating or expanding on the notion of settlements as harmless to peacemaking, in accordance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s worldview, responded with precisely the opposite sentiment: “They [settlements] don’t help the process,” said Trump, jaw-droppingly. “I can say that. There is so much land left. And every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left. But we are looking at that, and we are looking at some other options we’ll see. But no, I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.”

Israel Hayom did its best to ignore the presidential bombshell. It headlined its English newsletter report on the interview not with the dramatic news that the ostensibly pro-settlement leader of the free world is actually anti, but with another, much less surprising Trump quote: “I won’t condemn Israel, it’s been through enough.” Even its introductory paragraph, at the top of the transcript, didn’t mention the president’s settlement critique.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu will sit with Trump for the first time in the Oval Office. Many in the prime minister’s firmly pro-settlement, increasingly strident right-wing coalition had been expecting that this meeting would vindicate their initial euphoria at Trump’s presidential victory. Naftali Bennett, Miri Regev, Ayelet Shaked, Ze’ev Elkin et al had been hailing the election of the billionaire political rookie as prefacing the realization of their central goals. They and their colleagues had been loudly anticipating the abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal, the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, full-throated support for settlements, assent to West Bank annexation, and the explicit demise of all talk of Palestinian statehood. The news that Trump intended to send settler champion David Friedman as his envoy here only seemed to confirm the imminent radical shift in US policy after eight years of the unquestionably anti-settlement and purportedly Iran-appeasing Barack Obama.

Just like the editors at Israel Hayom, the Israeli right has been doing its best to ignore the president’s radically off-message settlement denunciation, and attempting to dictate US-Israel policy in the years ahead. Woe betide both Trump and Netanyahu, Jewish Home party leader Bennett warned on Saturday, if they dare to so much as mention, much less endorse, the notion of a two-state solution on Wednesday. If, in their public remarks, the two men cite “an obligation to establish Palestine or ‘two states’ in some or other iteration, we will all feel it in our flesh for years to come. It will be an earthquake,” declared Bennett, megalomaniacally presuming to tell the president of the United States what he can and cannot say. “International pressure, boycotts, anti-Israel reports, missiles, [building] freezes, tying the hands of our soldiers in the fight against terrorism — all this will continue and intensify,” Bennett predicted.

But the fact is that there’s simply no telling what this president might say to Netanyahu on Wednesday (or, for that matter, to anybody else, on any other subject, at any other time).

Where key Israeli interests are concerned, he’s changed the American leadership’s tone on Iran, and reintroduced certain sanctions, but he’s given no indication he’ll follow through on his campaign pledge to abrogate the entire nuclear deal. He’s now shattered all those preconceptions about settlement support. He’s hemming and hawing over moving the embassy — having initially intended to announce its relocation in his first “30 seconds” in office, according to Senate Foreign Relations Committee head Bob Corker (in a Politico interview on Monday). And in further extraordinary and assiduously downplayed comments in that same Israel Hayom interview, he’s urged Israel to be “reasonable with respect to peace” and declared that a deal “should be made, and it can be made” with the Palestinians — a goal that, if it is to be realized, most certainly would entail some iteration of a Palestinian state.

It was no accident that Netanyahu left for Washington early on Monday afternoon, Israel-time, landing late in the evening to give him and his advisers a full, clear working day Tuesday to try to prepare the ground for Wednesday’s White House tete-a-tete. The prime minister and his team will be using every available minute and every possible point of contact to try to coordinate with the new administration — to ensure that the right messages are conveyed.

Nobody expects anything but goodwill and warmth between the two leaders; Trump has indicated instinctive admiration for an Israel radiating strength in the toxic Middle East. But Netanyahu knows full well the potential for the famously, insistently unscripted president to say something unexpected, inconvenient, even disastrous, and that potential has to be minimized. The prime minister had no end of run-ins with Barack Obama, but their very public differences were highly calibrated and sophisticated. With Trump, it’s the spur-of-the-moment, unconsidered rhetoric he fears.

‘One of the challenges is to — when you’re sitting in front of him and talking about a policy issue — is to keep the focus on that policy issue that’s being discussed’ — Sen. Bob Corker on Donald Trump

Donald Trump is 70 years old, and has been a prominent public figure for decades. He’s traveled widely around the world, advancing his business interests in real estate, golf courses, beauty pageants, casinos. But unlike almost every other remotely resonant American politician, he has never been to Israel. He’s never seen the country firsthand. This spectacularly opinionated president doesn’t have his own, personally internalized sense of the Jewish state — the direct experience that AIPAC centrally recognizes is crucial to maintaining consensual pro-Israel sentiment on Capitol Hill.

He certainly has advisers with Israel expertise, and that oft-reported reliance on his Orthodox Jewish, Israel-loving son-in-law Jared. But he also has a secretary of state familiar with the Arab world, his administration hosted Jordan’s King Abdullah before Netanyahu, and he has or had business interests in Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

All of which, again, underlines that there’s really no telling what he might say to Netanyahu, in public or in private… or what he might do afterwards.

“One of the challenges” with President Trump, Bob Corker vouchsafed in his Politico interview, “is to — when you’re sitting in front of him and talking about a policy issue — is to keep the focus on that policy issue that’s being discussed.” Well, that will be Netanyahu’s challenge on Wednesday. A very different challenge from the kind he faced with Obama. And with very different potential consequences.

For better or worse, Israel always had a pretty clear idea of where it stood with the last administration. Only foolish Israeli politicians would claim to know precisely where we stand with this one. That is the case before Wednesday’s Trump-Netanyahu meeting. And here’s the thing: Whatever is said there, it will remain the case afterwards, too.

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